By Tim Kalinowski
For Medicine Hat based HALO Air Ambulance sometimes it is damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
After years of being dismissed as a vital air ambulance service, (despite numerous, positive user testimonies), due to the nature of the single-engine helicopter it used— and after years of being bypassed for sustainable, annual funding by successive provincial governments of all political stripes— HALO finally bit the bullet and bought in 2018 the aircraft they were told was necessary to be taken seriously as an air ambulance service: A twin engine BK-117.
Equipped with this new helicopter, and the carrying forward the rock-solid support it always had in south eastern Alberta, HALO approached the provincial government with some confidence prior to this last budget cycle only to have its hopes dashed once again. And worse yet, HALO, which runs solely on local government and grassroots donor support, had extended itself far beyond any financial comfort zone it could name.
“Our original program, the average, annual cost was about $850,000, which is a budget which is reasonable to expect local and regional governments and grassroots support to take care of,” says Paul Carolan, director of funding for HALO.
“But we were told (by Alberta Health) we would not be taken seriously as a medi-evac program until we had a twin engine, which is what the new helicopter is, but that came with a significant budget increase for us. So we went from $850,000 to $2.6 million.”
HALO currently operates as it always has: On a fee-for-service basis. This kind of funding model does not, and never has, paid all the bills, says Carolan; which is even more true than ever now.
“The missing piece has been a sustained contract with the provincial government,” he explains. “That’s missing piece was something we worked hard on this year to fill, and we were optimistic going into the fall budget that we thought we might have done enough to over the last six months to get the word out this is something which should be funded.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean those conversations don’t continue with Alberta Health Services.”
Carolan says HALO now has the ability to respond to any emergency anywhere in Southern Alberta, and appreciates all the donors who continue to pour their efforts in to keep the air ambulance service going.
“We have had significant support in the Medicine Hat area,” Carolan says, “and it continues to grow as we move southwest in our awareness and fundraising efforts. We have had lots of opportunities to speak with interested counties and municipalities over the past few months, and so we are getting the message out there we’re looking for their support as well.”
One group which has always supported HALO generously is the agriculture community, says Carolan, because that community understands the value of having a local air ambulance on call more than most.
“The agriculture community has always been a big supporter of us,” he confirms. “Right from the original program in 2007 to today, we have been to lots of farmers’ fields, oil and gas people, and where people are out driving out on the township roads and range roads. We have a connection to that industry that has been there since our inception.”
“With the helicopter, we don’t require a pre-determined landing site, and we can land on fairly small footprint when necessary,” Carolan adds. “What that means is the helicopter can go anywhere— at the intersection of a country road, in a farmer’s field— whatever is needed to make sure we can get there and help.”
For Scott Horner, general manager of HyTech Production and a key organizer of the annual Harvest Howler which took place earlier this month in Lethbridge, HALO is a vital service for his agricultural clients.
“The agricultural community being fairly remote, and farming being a relatively dangerous activity with heavy equipment,” accidents happen,” he says.
“HALO is a good service provider, and a very important resource for getting medical attention to remote areas when accidents happen.”
It is for this reason, and the organization’s current fiscal crunch, Horner says this year’s Harvest Howler was dedicated to HALO Air Ambulance. The event raised over $33,000 for HALO and Do More Ag, an organization working to better farmers’ mental health.
“Their fundraising is really grassroots driven,” he says. “They really rely significantly on corporate and individual donations to make sure their service continues.”
It is events like the Harvest Howler, says Carolan, which encourage his board and HALO supporters to carry on as best they can with the hopes the province will come through eventually with the sustainable funding the organization needs to stay viable over the long term.
“I love those sorts of things,” he says. “HALO is a program I am extremely passionate about, and any opportunity I have to share not only what HALO does, but how people can help us, is an opportunity I don’t take lightly. Being at an event like the Harvest Howler where we have lots agriculture people in the room, those are certainly people we have served in the past.
“I guess the bottom line is HALO is here to stay,” Carolan adds. “Our board has been dedicated to ensuring the program is viable and available to the people of Southern Alberta, and we’re dedicated to making that happen, regardless.”